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Taxidermy: a dying craft

Once in vogue, the preservation of animals through taxidermy was used both for education and, by some, for decoration

By Yusra Salim |
PUBLISHED June 25, 2021

Pets are not just animals for few people but are a part of their lives which impacts the owner differently than any other possession he has. To keep their pets close to them and decorate their houses with the hunting animals that the hunters have captured and killed, people enlist the help of taxidermists.

Deep in the basement of the Zoology department of University of Karachi, is the Museum of Natural History. Inside, stands still an entire animal kingdom. Frozen in mid journey, is a bird with bright wings, ready to take flight any second. Deeper inside is an alligator. Looking at him, its hard not to imagine him galloping quickly towards you. It’s harder still to wrap your mind around the fact that these animals will remain frozen in time here.
There lies an entire spectrum of species of monkeys. Mounted high on a wall, both intimidating and enamoring, above the rest of the animals so it stands out, is the head of a bull.

Preserving of animals, stuffing of animals, recreating the original animals and many other such practices -are all part of taxidermy. However, the art is dying and very few people know the basic science and techniques behind this preservation process. One such taxidermist is Munawwar Baksh Abbasi, who learned the skill from his father in the early 1970s when the well-known taxonomist Aqeel Ahmed Zuberi recognised his interest in the art.

Abbasi, whose father was associated with the Zoology department at the University of Karachi since the department was situated in 1952, used to go on conferences with Zuberi. Abbasi’s father who didn’t have a degree but had the skill to preserve animals and also how to maintain the ‘Museum of Natural History,’ which is a house for different faunal groups and above 0.3 million specimen’s majority of which were brought to the Zoology department from different parts of the world. “In the early 1970s, my father went to Murree with Dr Qadri and Zuberi where after a whole day of hunting, they couldn’t hunt a single bird. While staying in the lodge I shot a bird from a Rango air gun and that was where my journey of taxidermy started and I started learning the skill,” said Abbasi, who completed his education while staying at the campus while simultaneously also learning the skill to preserve animals.

How is it done?

Each animal and each species requires a different way to preserve or a different amount of chemicals and techniques to follow for the preservation process. However, the basics are more or less the same. “The animal should be brought to a taxidermist within 24 hours of his death,” he said, adding that as soon as the animal arrives, they remove its skin by making a small cut anywhere except for the head. “The professional taxidermist doesn’t peel off the skin as butchers do to animals at Bakra-Eid. They just make small cut mostly at the bottom so it won’t be very visible when we re-skin the animal”.

After removing the skin, the animal is cleaned from inside and his intestines, stomach and the rest of his organs are removed. Leaving just the skeleton to be preserved. “After the cleaning is carried out, sodium chloride or salt is applied on the animal for 10 to15 days (depending upon the animal) and it is kept in an airtight space,” explained Abbasi. The chemicals used for preservation differ from animal to animal but mainly taxidermist use salt, carbolic acid and alum are used. For smaller birds specifically, boric powder is used as an additional.

Once the skin and skeleton are kept in salt and chemicals, the stuffing is created with coconut jute and cotton body to make the structure long-lasting. “Coconut jute is mostly used in all animals except a few such as rabbits or smaller birds in which we use cotton,” he shared. The amount of chemicals used to preserve and clean the skin is between five to 10 per cent depending on the size of the skin and the type of technique used for the preservation. For instance, a formalin injection is used to stop the faces of the animals from deforming. Pointing to the head of a majestic lion mounted atop a wall, his his staring at you as if he was mid pounce when he was shot, he adds, “We injected formalin in his face as it started deforming quickly because it was brought to the lab late.”

The museum not only maintains the existing specimens they posesss but also provide services to government colleges and universities. They also preserve any animal which they catch on campus. “Back in when Dr Wahab was the Vice-Chancellor, a cobra of 5 feet 8 inches was caught from his residence, which I stuffed by just cutting the skin by 2 inches,” said Abbasi, while holding the once deadly cobra in his hands.

Taxidermy is all about technique and practice. Abbasi, who is nowadays working on a bird, has just cut off an inch into its skin to clean it. “We only need a small hole and the techniques we use are for lifetime preservation,” he said, holding the bird in his hands, adding that very few people now want their animals to be preserved and many do not even study Zoology or pursue careers in it as there is not much scope in the field.

The skill of taxidermy is neither well-recognised nor appreciated. As the trend to hunt and stuff animals for the purpose of decoation slowly gives way, consumers are losing their interest and thus the artist suffering. Sixty-two-year-old Muhammad Javed thinks that his talent and knowledge about taxidermy will die with him as he and his brother are the only people who are doing this in Karachi right now. “Noone is doing it and no one believes in learning it as well, even our children have started doing other businesses,” he said while sitting outside his shop in Saddar.

Javed, who learned taxidermy and stuffing of animals from his father has been coming to work at the shop with his father for longer than he can even remember. “My father came to Pakistan in 1947 from Delhi and set up his shop here. I guess he learned this in India,” said Javed, who was tried to remember how taxidermy came to his family. He has hired two technical staff now who help him with the work he does but to completely learn the art one needs at least three years to understand the quantity of chemical needed, which animals needs how much time for preservation and what is techniques are used to remove the skin.

How the preservation is done in markets

The techniques which market taxidermist use is somewhat different from what museums use. Markets businessman don’t stuff the animals but only form a fiber model and skin them with the original animal’s skin. “The animal should be brought to us within 24 hours from the time of death as after that it starts to deform and it would be difficult to work on the skin. The time frame can be stretched in winters but in summers especially, we prefer if the animal is brought as its earliest,” he added.

Explaining the steps and process of preserving he said that first of all they peel off the skin and put it in chemical for the specific day depending on the thickness and size of the skin. “The skin is kept under chemicals and then washed in them as well and as soon as the skin is peeled the measurement of the skeleton and skull are taken and a fiber model is made, which is later skinned,” Javed said, adding that the process can take 10-25 days depending upon the size of the animal.

Who are the consumers?

Since the interest has been changing in the upcoming generation, the consumers have gone down now mostly the business comes from farmhouses, zoos, schools, colleges, and organisations who want such models for decoration purposes. “Mostly farmhouses want us to preserve monkeys, deer, birds etc,” he said, adding that the charges for taxidermy of fiber models vary from Rs 500 to Rs 25,000. For example, a monkey would cost Rs10,000 while a deer would be Rs20,000,” he said.

The business is already slow and the shop owners get one big animal or two a month. Javed and his employees wait for winters when most of the hunters go hunting and bring back a few to get preserved. “We get better work in winters usually, or if any disaster happens, we get big orders. For example, when there was a fire in Bahria Zoo, the cost for preserving giraffes went upto Rs10 million but for that, all the skinning and other process was done at the zoo itself,” said Javed. “The life of the animals which they are stuffing is ten years but even afterwards, the animals animals need care. Javed provides his consumers with a spray which can prevent the from deforming and increase their preservation.

Taxidermy cannot be done without procuring special permission and licensing, which is issued by the concerned department in each province. For Sindh, that license in issued by the Sindh Wildlife department. “The first license we got was in 1972 and was issued by the department with a fee of Rs 500 while currently, the license fee is Rs 10,000 for a year,” he said. Other than stuffing animals, Javed also sells fur coats, handbags, shoes and souvenirs made of animal skin.

Hunter turned into taxidermist

Other than learned professionals and businessmen some common people are also learning and preserving animals which they hunt or for those animals which die as their pets. One such enthusiast is Zaeem Haider and his father who have around 10 animals mounted as decorations atop their walls across the house. “My father is the brain behind this venture and he has been preserving animals for 23 years now,” said Haider, adding that the techniques they use to preserve animals take three to four months and they are for a lifetime if taken care of properly. “The stuffed animals shouldn’t be kept under the sun. They should be strictly kept indoors and there are sprays available, which do not let the skin get dry,” he explained.

Explaining how he and his father preserve the animals, he said that they peel off the skin and keep it in chemicals for a month at least and flesh the remaining animal then make a fiber model and stitch back the skin. “The fiber model is safest as it doesn’t break and is fragile even if the animal falls. The stuffed animals, in comparison, are very fragile,” added Haider, who does stuffing for others for a fee as well.